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When Are We Being Manipulative? When Is It Just Best Practice?

by David Brock on March 8th, 2015

Few would promote blatant manipulation of the customer to achieve our goals.  We are regaled with stories of sales people shamelessly manipulating customers.

The manipulation may be outright deception about the capabilities of a product or service.  It may be deceitful pricing or contracting processes.  It may be taking advantage of a situation–perhaps a customer’s misfortune.  It may be “bait and switch techniques.”  It may be high pressure selling techniques.  The methods of manipulation go back millennium’s to the very first sales transactions.  There’ve been various labels applied to sales people using these techniques–hucksters, charlatans, or “snake oil” salespeople are just a few.

We’ve stereotyped some of the “approaches,” for example boiler room operations or even sullied the reputations of “used car sales people.”

Today, we are subjected to practices, most of us would find shameful—deceptive direct mail with “Tax Documents” on the outside of the envelope (we always see these during tax season), deceptive emails offering “get rich quick” schemes (we all know who gets rich on these schemes.  All of us are aware and sensitive, both as consumers being subjected to these deceptions, and as sales professionals.  Other than those practicing these approaches, most of us would find these appalling and shameful.

We know the manipulative practices used by these sales people have impacted the overall perception of sales people.

We know the difficulty we have reaching and engaging customers who don’t want to talk to sales people.  A lot of the reluctance has been just bad selling.  Wasting customer time, focusing on ourselves and our products.  Not being knowledgeable about our products.  Being focused on making our numbers, without concern for the customer.  Having no value to create.  These bad practices make customers reluctant to pick up the phone or respond to a prospecting email.

Virtually every “customer” has the examples where they feel they have been manipulated in some way at some point in their “buying careers.”

All of this creates less than positive impressions of sales people.

As sales and marketing professionals, we are always on a fine line.  We focus on the positive attributes of our solutions or our companies.  We know our products don’t do certain things, we try to focus customers on the things we do really well, while trying to get the customer to deprioritize things we don’t do well.

We don’t misrepresent in any way, but we do focus on the positive.  We don’t volunteer the things we can’t or don’t do, but will answer truthfully, when asked by the customer–all while hoping to steer things more to our favor.

In  our collateral, we always focus on the positive.  We sometimes exaggerate certain issues or stories to create an impact we want.  Never telling a lie, but trying to influence reactions and perceptions in a certain way.

I’d be a fool not to admit that I don’t do the same thing.  All of the stories I tell in this blog are absolutely true, but often I choose to emphasize certain items, because they help me illustrate or amplify a point that I’m making.

It’s human nature, not just sales people, to exaggerate.  We want to make our stories entertaining, interesting, engaging, and impactful.  We sometimes exaggerate our own roles in those stories.  We sometimes, both on the buying and selling side, exaggerate our own importance in a decision or in our companies.

There’s an undefined but very definite line we can cross, where we move from exaggeration, focusing on the positive, to manipulation, lying, and deceit.  It’s a line we push, perhaps unwittingly, until we find ourselves at the wrong side of the line.  We’ve countless examples of corporate and individual malfeasance–that probably didn’t start that way, but ended up there.  The mortgage and related scandals of a few years ago, some of the health care scandals we read about daily, even respected people like Brian Williams of NBC News find themselves having gone a step too far, too often.

Technology also enables us to do other things, which can become either highly effective or hugely manipulative.

Technology enables us to dramatically increase the volume and velocity of what we do.  For small businesses, like my own company, we can extend our reach far more easily that we had in the past.  We can communicate with customers and prospects in new ways.  There are thousands of blog posts and articles about the effective and ineffective use of email marketing, social channels, and so forth.  Analytics give us new information, enabling us to engage customers differently than ever before.

Privacy is fast disappearing, we are able to connect very disparate sets of data—website visits, spending patterns, demographic, personal finance, and other sorts of data in new ways, all under the hope of maximizing our relevance to our customers, hoping we catch them at that “moment of truth” when we can influence their behaviors—whether that’s reading an email, picking up the phone, responding to an offer, making a purchase decision.

We leverage everything we can to find those who have a high propensity to buy, who are likely to respond now, who are likely to pick up the phone.  We leverage these because they “produce results.”  We’d be foolish not to leverage these–and well executed customers and prospects respond positively.

But then again, there’s that fine line.  That line between aggressive but ethical practices and manipulation.

A simple example.  The other day, I wrote, “I Signed Up For An eBook…….”

The post offered my experience with a sales person responding instantly to my downloading an eBook.  While the sales person’s execution was terrible, the practice is very powerful.  We know the prospect is likely to be more receptive and reachable when we respond immediately.  There is ton’s of compelling data to reinforce this–showing dramatic fall off as response rates stretch from seconds to minutes to hours to days.

At the same time, the sales person leveraged another piece of technology, “Local caller ID.”  Apparently, the data shows people are more likely to answer a local phone call than they are a call from a different area.  So, in my case, the “Caller ID,” indicated a local caller.  Clearly, the caller wanted to make me think he was just down the street and from my community because the data shows that I am more likely to answer the phone and respond.

Yet, I discovered, both from his voicemail message and his subsequent emails, he was nowhere near me.  In fact, he was over 1000 miles away.  He wasn’t in my local community, probably didn’t even know where my local community is.  But he (and his company) wanted to make me feel they were local—just to get me to answer the phone.

In the hopes of maximizing the likelihood of my responding to the call, they purposely manipulated my behavior by creating a lie–before we had even spoken.  I’m sure the company doesn’t believe it is unethical–it’s a feature they, in fact, advertise.  After all, the rationalization is, “We just want you to pick up the phone.”  But it is based on a manipulation or lie.

One wonders about the next, “We just want you to …….?”  For example, in their emails they claimed to be able to increase my revenue by 33% in 90 days.  I didn’t take that as a manipulation, even though they didn’t say, “we’ve helped others, like you, increase……”  (which I believed was what was being communicated).  But perhaps, someone else would take that as a “commitment.”

It’s a crazy, very difficult fine line.  I didn’t feel offended by the revenue claim, even though it was not true, but I did feel manipulated by the “local phone call.”  So it made me wonder about their trustworthiness.  Someone else would feel completely differently and others would not be offended by either practice.

This brings a fundamental question of ethics to the forefront.  Technology allows us to do things we never could have done in the past.  Much of it is very positive.  Much of it produces results.

But do the results produced overshadow the manipulation and deceit leveraged to create the result?

It always comes down to, “Does the end justify the means?”  Should we even care?

I don’t mean to be naïve or idealistic.  As others do, I am aggressive in promoting what we do well, de-emphasizing areas in which we are not as strong.  I aggressively try to persuade and convince people to shift points of view or perceptions that favor us.

What do you think?

 

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4 Comments
  1. David,

    People who claim the end justifies the means are ethically bankrupt. Period.

    People who confuse “best practices” with deceptive practices are seriously lacking in business ethics.

    People who claim “everyone does it” are wrong on the facts as well as the ethics – if everyone did it, most customers would have caught on long ago.

    You don’t have to believe that nice guys finish first or that there are no successful hustlers in this world to make those claims – you just have to believe that business isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exempt for the basic moral judgments we apply elsewhere in society.

  2. David, I think that you have given yourself too easy of a problem to solve. And Charles has given the standard solution.

    Let me try something different.

    Every time a sale is made, someone’s hot buttons were pushed.

    That hot button which made you reach for your wallet, sign a purchase order, or just say yes.

    Now, suppose we had the Ring of Gyges, but for Sales.

    Just rubbing the Ring would push your hot button.

    Under what circumstances would be be justified in using it?

    For example, if I knew you would truly be better off making an exchange, but knew that I if I didn’t push your hot buttons, you would procrastinate, is that sufficient justification to use the Ring?

    (For the original problem see Plato’s discussion, summarized at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_of_Gyges).

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